Between Nature and Earth: A Comparison of “The Long Tunnel Ceiling” and “The Burnt-Out Spa”
“As a species, we are most animated when our days and nights on Earth are touched by the natural world” – Richard Louv
Plath and Hughes seem to have different relationships with nature; in The Long Tunnel Ceiling Hughes, Hughes seems to gain a grounding and sense of vibrancy when in a natural environment whereas Plath presents an image of decay and disintegration when surrounded by the natural world. Whilst Hughes observes the natural world in order to gain pleasure and grounding from its beauty, might and ferocity, Plath uses nature in an effort to understand herself and gain answers to the questioned that followed her throughout her life, most notably the reasons for and causes of her mental illness. In Burnt out spa Plath sees an image of herself in the water which contrast to Hughes who sees a trout ‘crash; from the water. This symbolises how Plath doesn’t appear animated by nature, instead, as a confessional poet she uses it to further her exploration of her internal thoughts. Whereas Hughes appears to have more of an affinity with nature and gains a sense of salvation from the industrialisation of the world when faced with the natural world. Indeed, in horses Hughes uses the memory of the ‘Megalith- still’ environment to ground him whilst in bustling man made environments.
For Hughes, the emphasis and purpose of his poetry was to convey the beauty of nature; he teaches us understand how the outside world can be experienced. Growing up in the countryside he believed that nature offered a ‘thin glitter’ that could be found ‘amongst mean gritstone’ which could nurture and give one beauty in our lives. This is compounded because ‘glitter’ has connotations of celebration and festivity. Furthermore, Hughes gives the directly tangible image of nature offering ‘the wild god now flowering’ by turning the noun ‘flower’, which is usually a property of nature, into a present participle verb Hughes lends power to nature and shows it as an active force. Hughes appreciation of nature and how it animates us is enhanced as he refers to nature as a ‘god’ this alludes to how he worshiped and saw nature as the leading power in his life. This is a stark contrast to Plath’s Burnt out Spa, which far from being about salvation though nature, is used as a vehicle to convey her inner world to enhance understanding about herself, hence the use of the firth person pronoun ‘I’, this differs to Hughes who only uses one first person pronoun, ‘ignoring me’ however, this is only employed to give the trout higher status by portraying it as superior and unaffected by Hughes, (man’s) presence. Plath’s poetry further refers to herself as it reflects her own ‘toneless’ mind hence there are barely any active verbs. Instead they tend to refer to destruction; ‘ended’, ‘smelted’, ‘spoils’ therefore this seems to deny the idea that we are most animated when touched by nature.
The Burnt-Out Spa seems to present nature offering a possibility of salvation for Plath which is conveyed through the image of water as ‘it flows off’ and becomes ‘toneless water’ this conveys an image of progression and cycle of life. However, Plath rejects this development as instead she is ‘seated beneath’ the water. This is an image of contradictions with Plath inactive and stationary against the natural flow of water. The notion of Plath’s rejection to become animated by the water is conveyed through the regularity of the quatrains, encased by one line stanzas at the beginning and end of the poem which draws a distinction from Hughes free verse and lack for regular structure in his stanzas. These quatrains portray a methodical clinical way of looking at nature “like a doctor or archaeologist” Thus suggesting she is not enthused by nature but is animated into a structured analysis. This is augmented by the simile “like a doctor or archaeologist” as the connotations of the occupations are people who regard nature in a form of scientific analysis. This further shows the rigidity of Plath and her mind; she is not prepared for change. image of water is replicated by the presence of the canal in The Long Tunnel Ceiling, Initially, this water mirrors the ugliness of the industrial surrounding through the long vowel sounds in ‘long gleam-ponderous’ which create a languorous effect that is compounded by the consonant sounds of ‘l’ and ‘g’. However, transforms this dull, passive image though exclamatory onomatopoeic sentences like ‘Suddenly a crash!’ though which nature emerges in the form of a trout. This reference to nature is deemed a ‘Holy of holies! A treasure!’ The exclamation marks and alliteration of ‘ho’ enhances this excitement at the trout’s presence which can be deemed synonymous with animated. This contrasts to Plath’s morbid final line ‘Neither nourishes nor heals.’ The combination of the two negatives ‘neither’ and ‘nor’ with the plosive consonance of ‘n’ gives a pessimistic outlook on the effect of nature. Alternatively, it could be argued that the imagery of the ‘toppled stones’ is just a metaphor for the spa and therefore the pessimistic tone is not a reflection of the impact of nature but a damning indictment of institution that claim to heal. Context gives further weight to this notion as Plath had unsuccessful experiences from repeated admissions into mental health clinics. Thus the ‘old beast ended’ could refer to herself being sinisterly worn to the ‘bones’ by the ‘soft suede tongues’ that represent doctors’ hands. The sibilance here has a sinister effect and justifies Plath’s rejection of this image.
Plath wrote because she desperately needed to reveal her inner secrets: Hughes said ‘You can’t overestimate her compulsion to write like that. She had to write those things—even against her most vital interests. She had to tell everybody.’ This conveys that her poetry is about an introverted self-discovery, nature is not featured in her poetry to show the external worlds effect on her but rather Plath’s inner struggle to accept the world she lived in. Indeed, in ‘Sheep in the Fog’ she employs colours represented in nature to show the darkening of her mind as she journeys to death: the purity of ‘whiteness’ changes to ‘rust’ which connotes disintegration, before her world is seen as ‘blackening’ to ‘dark water’. Plath is working with binaries; with the opposites of white and black to show the darkness that has enveloped her. The plosive ‘b’ in blackening combined with the suffix ‘ing’ shows the aggression and is a stark contrast to the usual connotations of ‘Morning’. By focusing on the darkness, Plath rejects natures chance of a new dawn and thus new opportunities. This theme of destruction through nature is emulated in the Burnt out spa, in fact through the similar imagery of water, which in both poems shows images of drowning and stagnancy.
This contrast to Hughes who uses nature to show the possibilities of creation. In the thought-fox the night itself is symbolic of the depths of imagination; ‘this midnight moment’s forest’ midnight represents being on the tip of something new, this is an image that Hughes latches oppose to Plath who shuns the idea of a new day. The short vowel sounds create a sense of apprehension, and notion of dormant genius about to spur into action. Hughes is able to animate a blank canvas that is metaphorically represented through the image of the ‘snow’ and ‘darkness’ of the night. The materialisation of ‘a fox’s nose touches twig’ breaks this emptiness, the dentil consonance of ‘t’ creates an illusion of Hughes’s excitement at the emergence of the fox. Ted Hughes writes with a pace that heightens the anticipation. At the start, only the fox’s nose is visible. Then two eyes. The choppy punctuation shows the hesitancy of the fox/idea, the delicate way that Ted Hughes writes about the fox leaving prints in the snow is further emphasized by the sharp, short phrase ‘sets neat prints in the snow’. One interpretation of this poem would be that it chronologically describes an image of a fox ‘entering the loneliness’ of the night, this shows Hughes an animated by the presence of nature particularly through the positive active verbs ‘widening deepening’ that are introduced when the fox is present. Alternatively, it is an extended metaphor for Hughes grasping an idea to stimulate his writing. This is shown through the progression from ‘blank page’ to the fox gradually emerging until the sibilance ‘sudden sharp hot stink of fox’, shows that the poet has reached the peak of his musing. The fox is suddenly visible, the idea is suddenly within the poet’s mind, and has been immortalized on the page. Whichever interpretation is maintained, they both show Hughes as animated when touched by nature, indeed in this last reading the poem, which was Hughes livelihood, and the fox exist as one entity. This is compounded by Hughes himself who stated that ‘every time anyone reads it the fox will get up somewhere out of the darkness and come walking towards them’. This compounds the idea stressed in The Long Tunnel Ceiling that nature acts as a ‘god’ capable of creation that animates mankind.
Therefore, Plath does not use her poetry to convey man as most animated when touched by nature because her primary concern to write about herself and her relationship with the world. She shows that she is crushed by her surrounding hence ‘the far fields melt my heart’ in Sheep in Fog; her core and organ responsible for life is disintegrated by the external world. Instead she is animated by the allure of death which is shown through the imperative employed in ‘let me through to heaven’ which shows her almost begging for death and again through her scrutiny and obsession that is implied as she ‘picks and pry’s’ through bones in Burnt out spa. On the other hand, Hughes’s poetry agrees with Richard Louv that nature animates man. He is able to transform the ugly ‘bushy mask’ of an industrial town, Hughes de-‘masks’ the town to reveal the beauty that nature can provide. Hughes seems to have a clear vision of his role as a poet to share the potential for grounding and animation that nature can provide but has mainly remained ‘masked’, he aspires to impel society to explore the natural world.
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